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the real world

Mark Zanewick and Cassandra Ruggiero at the AIESEC offices in Toronto.Tim Fraser/The Globe and Mail

In the spring of 2010, Mark Zanewick had a problem. A vice-president he supervised was underperforming, and the company's relationships with corporate partners were suffering.

Mr. Zanewick, president of the Calgary branch of his organization, had to make some tough decisions: first, he let his underperforming VP go, then he embarked on an ambitious organizational restructuring of his executive team to cover the absent VP's portfolio. The reorganization paid off, and at the end of the year, corporate relations turned out to be one of his branch's strongest areas.

This scenario may sound like everyday stuff for most executives, but what makes Mr. Zanewick's experience atypical is that, at the time, he was an undergraduate student in economics and commerce at the University of Calgary. While his classmates were reading about strategic decision-making in textbooks, Mr. Zanewick was struggling to come up with real-life management solutions while working for AIESEC, a global student-run organization. He was only 21.

Mr. Zanewick, who is currently taking a year off school to work at AIESEC in Toronto, has realized what many other students are also clueing into: a credential from a business school is only the price of admission to the job market. In order to stand out from all the other job applicants, business students need to get out of the classroom and into the real world to develop skills to succeed professionally.

Offering these very experiences to students is AIESEC's primary focus. They partner with businesses around the world to facilitate internships. "I like the realness of working for AIESEC," says Mr. Zanewick. "Ninety-five per cent of the things I've learned here could not have come out of a classroom."

Catherine Chandler-Crichlow of the Toronto Financial Services Alliances (TFSA) believes students often neglect to gain soft skills. "When you're in school and focusing on completing credits and your GPA, you're not necessarily thinking about what you're going to do with this when you're done," she says.

As executive director of TFSA's Centre for Excellence in Financial Services Education, Ms. Chandler-Crichlow has researched what employers in Toronto's financial sector are looking for in applicants. "The industry has identified that it needs more people with soft skills specific to certain jobs," she says, "Things like team building, effective communication, adaptability in thinking, information sharing, creativity."

"We did some focus groups with college and university students and graduates and we asked them whether they were aware about the opportunities out there, and we found they weren't," Ms. Chandler-Crichlow says.

"They also weren't aware of the specific capabilities the industry was looking for."

Simply claiming to be a "strong team member" on a résumé isn't enough. Rather, applicants must be able to demonstrate their skills by describing concrete learning experiences.

For Cassandra Ruggiero, AIESEC was the perfect place to gain these experiences. She joined the local chapter at Guelph University in part to work on her debilitating fear of public speaking.

"It really pushed me out of my comfort zone," says Ms. Ruggiero, who is now VP communications in AIESEC's national office. "I really had to force myself to do it, but now that I'm on the national team, I have spoken to up to 350 people at a time. The fact that I can do that and be comfortable is huge for me."

More students seem to be realizing they need to develop soft skills, whether through an organization like AIESEC, volunteering, work experience, athletics or other extra-curricular activities. "When I speak to students, they are asking about the full range of capabilities we are looking for," says Ms. Chandler-Crichlow. "They aren't only asking, 'What degree should I get?'"